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Our English (Not Scottish) Reformation

How the English Reformation Was Named
The Politics of History c. 1400-1700
By Benjamin Guyer
Oxford, 240 pages, $85

Church historians have been engaged for some years now in a bout of terminological self-examination. At times this has felt a little wearying, as the language police keep coming for terms we had been using without any malicious intent (I used to think monophysite was a neutral, descriptive word). At times it has seemed self-indulgent, as if we would rather debate labels than do the hard work of actual research. But on the whole, this has been a thoroughly good thing. Not only because it has made us conscious of the value judgments baked into our terminology, judgments with which we might be perfectly content but of which we ought at least to be aware; but also because it has made us realize that the labels we use to describe major movements or events in the history of Christianity themselves have histories. These terms were usually contested and their meanings have usually subtly shifted over time. If we simply accept them as givens, we are already setting our own thinking into tramlines. In my field, once-unproblematic terms like Catholic, Protestant, or (most wobbly of all) Anglican have all had the treatment. It is now hard to use these words without a feeling that you are walking on eggshells: a sometimes exasperating but entirely welcome development. It was only a matter of time before someone did the same number on the word Reformation. Cometh the hour, cometh Ben Guyer’s new monograph.

The questions he raises apply to the entire phenomenon of religious change in Latin Christendom that has traditionally traced its way back to Martin Luther (one problem with all this verbal problematization is that it produces word salads like that). But his particular focus is on the episode formerly known as the English Reformation, and on how that label came to be applied to it. The basic thesis is as follows. Reformation, reformatio, was as bland and universal a term in late medieval and early modern church life as reform is in modern politics: everyone aspired to it, in particular every ecumenical council from Constance to Trent. The evangelicals and schismatics who bubbled to the surface in the 1520s, inspired in part by Luther, naturally borrowed this language. Writing the year after Henry VIII formally took England into schism, Archbishop Cranmer pondered what might be possible in “this world of reformation.” But this series of events was not “the Reformation,” simply another instance of a continuing process that had ebbed and flowed over centuries. Apart from anything else, the newly self-governing Church of England had an acute institutional interest in minimizing the extent to which anything had really changed. None ofthe church’s official formularies mention “the Reformation,” and they only allude to it in the most coy terms.

That much we more or less already knew. The question remains how the familiar label, with its assertive definite article, came to be applied to these events. Here Guyer has an arresting case to make, centered unexpectedly on Scotland. Whereas England experienced stop-start, politically led and somewhat muted reformatio during the 16th century, medieval Christianity in Scotland ended with a bang, not a whimper.

The unexpected, dramatic, and pervasive religious transformation effected in Scotland between the spring of 1559 and the summer of1560 created not only a new national Calvinist church, but one whose origins were anti-royal and that jealously guarded its independence from queens and kings of all religious persuasions.From the 1560s onward, Scottish Protestants — in particular, their most eloquent and dangerous spokesman, John Knox — had a simple term to describe these events. It was during that turbulent decade that Knox wrote his Historie of the Reformation of the Church of Scotland. The title might be taken to refer to that process of reformatio, but the book’s contents made it clear that Knox thought what had happened in 1559-60 was singular: this was, his readers concluded, “the Scottish Reformation.

At the heart of Guyer’s book is this key insight: that when, mostly in the mid-17th century, English writers began to use terms like “our Reformation,” “our English Reformation,” and eventually “the English Reformation,” they were doing so in order to draw a sharp and deliberate contrast with Scotland. The Scots boasted of their turbulent and rebellious Reformation, which sent a queen into exile, subjected her son to various indignities, and finally showed its true colors by leading a revolt against her grandson and setting in train the process that led to his execution.

But our Reformation, our English Reformation, was not like that at all. It was orderly, lawful, moderate and in keeping with the spirit of the ancient Church, while also being resolutely anti-papal. So (a certain species of English churchman argued in the1630s and 1640s), which Reformation do you want? The wild Scottish variant, or the true and loyal English kind?

Those who supported the Long Parliament’s call for reformation in head and members, or who signed the “Covenant for the preservation and Reformation of Religion” in1643, were being told: of course we all favor reformation. But this is not how Englishmen do it. Let us be true (these churchmen said) to the spirit of the English Reformation, which bequeathed us treasures like the Book of Common Prayer and doctrines such as the Royal Supremacy, and which was completed a lifetime ago; and let us have done with these fanatics and foreigners.

Of course, the other side disagreed. Guyer suggests, very plausibly, that if the mid-17th century had played out differently — if the regime of Oliver Cromwell had endured, as well it might had he not dropped dead when he was not yet 60 — then we would nowadays take the term the English Reformation to refer to the events of the 1640s: when, as had happened in Scotland, a civil war led to a decisive religious change in the teeth of royal opposition.

But as we know, the party who were just beginning to describe themselves as “Anglicans” managed to win the peace. We have never quite settled on a single term for that 17th-century upheaval: The Great Rebellion? The Civil War and Interregnum — or Republic? The English Revolution? But the “Anglicans” have been almost completely successful in imposing their label on the religious upheavals of the previous century. This — and only this — was the English Reformation. It is no coincidence that the phrase was made canonical by a Scotsman who would later become an English bishop, Gilbert Burnet: in his History of the Reformation of the Church of England (1679), the Elizabethan “settlement” of 1559 was the story’s end. Guyer even has a sliver of evidence that the German term the reformation of religion led by Dr. Martin Luther, a phrase first made canonical in Seckendorff ’s history of 1688, was a nod to Burnet.

Do you buy all this? Perhaps you don’t — but if you don’t, I think you should at least be left with that uncomfortable eggshell-walking feeling whenever you say the phrase the Reformation. Guyer’s strikingly original argument is certainly open to question in various places, and while I find it broadly persuasive, it may simply be that my Scots ancestry and Roundhead sympathies make me a soft touch.But whether or not you agree with his answers, he has raised questions that need to be asked, and shown why this is not a mere semantic quibble. My hope and expectation is that he will have achieved all that any historian ever wants to: to spur others to find answers to his questions that are even better.

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